By Keith Michael
Summer Solstice. June 21st. Sunrise 5:25 am. Sunset 8:30 pm. The longest day of the year.
Last night, while walking in the rain on the beach at Fort Tilden, I thought about the question I’m often asked, “What’s your favorite bird?” My facetious answer is, “The one I’m with!” But as I was holding up a broken umbrella against the wind, juggling my binoculars, covering my camera with a sodden windbreaker, wishing I had dressed for a cold evening, and trying not to think about the sandwich in my backpack that I was not eating while watching a technicolor summer solstice sunset, I also thought, “What other birds would I do this for?” Shorebirds have become my favorite birds, and of the many kinds of shorebirds that can be seen, my true favorite is the Piping Plover.
First of all, “What’s a shorebird?” It’s the generic name for a (usually) smaller bird with long legs that is often seen at the edges of water, running along a beach, or picking in the mud for tidbits of sustenance. A larger shorebird, the Bar-tailed Godwit, holds the long-distance migration record of any animal, flying from Siberia to Australia for eight days and nights non-stop! (Think about that when you’re wondering whether to walk to the store or not.) Perhaps the “classic” shorebirds are Sanderlings. They are often seen on our beaches in great numbers, running continuously just out of the surf as the waves crash in front of them.
Last night, as a celebration of the longest day of the year, my destination was the beach at Fort Tilden on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, a #2 Train and Q35 bus journey away, to see nesting Piping Plovers and their chicks. Piping Plovers are among the smallest of shorebirds, sand-colored with a white chest and a single black necklace band. They make a faint piping sound, and to add to their allure they are critically endangered. Their choices of nesting real estate are the same beaches that humans flock to in the summer. They winter in the Bahamas or further south, and migrate north to hollow out indentations in the sand near the dunes to lay their clutches of four eggs. In the harsh summer sun they often have to cover their eggs, not to keep them warm but to shade them from hard-boiling! Everything is stacked against them: bad weather, high tides, humans playing beach ball, dogs running loose, seagulls looking for snacks, nearby orange-billed American Oystercatchers foraging to feed their own chicks, any number of four-legged critters that predate their nests, and, the most fearsome to me if I were a plover, the burrowing Ghost Crabs who share the same beaches. Imagine a truck-sized behemoth with snapping claws, next door, whose only desire was to eat your kids every time you came out of your apartment.
With the help of protective fencing, informative signage, enclosures placed around known nests, a rotation of vigilant volunteers from the NYC Plover Project, diligent Gateway National Recreation Area park rangers, and somewhat more empathetic beach-goers, several pairs of Piping Plovers do manage to nest on that two mile stretch of beach at Fort Tilden. Against daunting odds, some eggs hatch, and if all goes well a few chicks will survive to follow their parents to the Bahamas for the winter! If you’ve read my articles over the years, you know that there was an ongoing tension when I mentioned the cuteness of Piping Plover chicks in the presence of my uber-cute Pembroke Welsh Corgi Millie who, sadly, is no longer available to disapprove.
The cliché description of a Piping Plover chick is “a cotton ball on toothpick legs.” Unfortunately, there’s little improvement on that. If you wanted to market a cute stuffed toy, you could do no better than to model it after a Piping Plover chick. To further enhance their charm, the chicks are precocial. This means that despite being tiny and fluffy, hours after they hatch out of their eggs they are able to leave the nest on their own and feed themselves. When there is danger, parents do send out a “piping alarm” and the chicks either freeze in place or run to snuggle under Mom or Dad, inspiring remarkable photos of ten-legged plovers (two of Mom Plover’s legs and two each of four little plovers.)
Last night, due to the forecast of 39 percent chance of rain (which I optimistically ignored), which turned out to be 100 percent rain where I was, the summer solstice sunset was a bust. And all the Piping Plovers were sheltering in place out of sight. But I DID see a new family of American Oystercatcher toddlers, maybe only hours old, also struggling to survive in a harsh world.
After a bus and a train and drying off at home, I was ready to go try again to see my (shh) favorite birds.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.